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Wild Plants Sought For Climate Traits

Farm experts plan to track down wild relatives of crops such as rice or wheat with traits that make them able to resist global warming in a project costing perhaps $50 million, a leading expert said March 9.

“The wild relatives of cultivated crops … are largely uncollected or conserved in gene banks,” said Cary Fowler, head of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust which co-manages a “doomsday” seed vault on an Arctic island north of Norway.

“We’re at the early stages” of a project to identify and collect wild relatives of major crops to help breed more resilient varieties for a warming world, he told Reuters.

A wild potato plant in the Andes, for instance, might contain a previously unknown trait to resist droughts or heat waves, floods or disease. Such traits could help breeders develop crops to bolster world food supplies in coming decades.

Wild plants “contain some of the extreme adaptations that are going to be necessary to cope with climate change – like extreme heat resistance, drought tolerance,” he said.

A project to find wild relatives of 30 to 50 major crops worldwide might cost between $30 million and $50 million, he estimated.

Focusing on the main crops could help millions of people adapt to impacts of climate change, a step forward after a UN climate summit in Copenhagen in December fell short of many nations’ hopes for a treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Breeders have drawn on wild relatives throughout history – wheat grown in large parts of the United States, for instance, had been made more resistant to disease by cross-breeding with a weed-like relative found in Turkey in the 1940s.

But collection has not been done systematically with future climate change in mind, Fowler said.

DESERTS

He said his trust was working with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia to narrow down where to look for relatives of crops, such as on the edge of deserts.

To start, experts were focusing on finding traits lacking in existing crops that might be useful in future because of climate change. They would start in areas where plants were under threat – for instance from deforestation or road building.

So far, modelling of Africa suggested that Sudan, Eritrea or Cameroon were promising places to find robust wild relatives.

Fowler was also in talks with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, England, and Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank about the project.

Eighty per cent of the energy people get from food comes from 12 to 15 crops worldwide, led by rice, wheat, maize and potatoes and including sorghum, millet, beans, bananas and sugar crops.

Making crops more robust “is really not an optional addition. As long as we want to have viable societies and reasonable food prices and food security this is something we’ll have to do,” he said.

Research suggested that the most valued trait would be resistance to heat, which can curl leaves, disrupt seed germination or flowering. Heat resistance seemed more important than related traits for tackling stress on water supplies.

“You actually want plants to grow and mature at a faster rate to avoid the extreme heat. That will require a short-maturing variety, not just heat resistance,” he said.

Securing resources to find wild relatives could be an easy success in 2010 – the UN International Year of Biodiversity – and a break from what Fowler called doom and gloom about extinctions of animals and plants.

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